When kids go hungry: What happens when school meals stop?

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Lulama Maseti waters her garden in Makhanda, Eastern Cape. Picture: Black Star/Spotlight
Lulama Maseti waters her garden in Makhanda, Eastern Cape. Picture: Black Star/Spotlight

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For more than 9 million pupils across the country, school meals are a lifeline, but this came to a grinding halt during the hard Covid-19 coronavirus lockdown period. As a result, many pupils became dependent on soup kitchens and donations. In the fourth part of a six-part series on child hunger and nutrition, Kathryn Cleary speaks to pupils about how they were affected and how some organisations are fighting for improvements.

It is mid-morning on a Wednesday in Extension 8, a township area in Makhanda in the Eastern Cape. Children line the fence with their containers, eager for their first meal of the day from Lulama Maseti’s pop-up soup kitchen. Judging by the looks, chatter and size of the queue, it seems school is closed for the day so many pupils cannot get their usual school meal.

Maseti feeds roughly 100 children and 50 adults every day except Sunday. Her kitchen runs entirely on donations and vegetables that she grows in her own small garden. Makhanda is in the midst of a severe drought, so water for Maseti’s garden is scarce, but she manages with the use of carefully rationed water from her nearly empty water tank she uses to store rainwater.

Within minutes of removing the lid of the big pot of vegetable stew, all the food has been dished out. Younger children with heaped containers full of food run back home, while teenagers pile on to bicycles with their friends, hoping not to spill.

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A young child runs home after receiving a meal from Lulama Maseti’s pop-up soup kitchen. Picture: Black Star/Spotlight

Maseti’s kitchen is not the only one helping to feed pupils who cannot get their school meals. Across Makhanda in another area called Vergenoeg, Desiree Sphere and Kaylynn Erushin have also started a pop-up soup kitchen that feeds members of their community, mostly children, twice a week.

While speaking to Spotlight, three young children skip across the road towards Sphere’s home. They sit in a row on a step on the front porch of the house, but they are all too busy eating chunks of bread stuffed with savoury rice to notice Spotlight’s presence. Sphere says that these children are regulars at their home, always coming for food.

The children are siblings, aged three, five and six, and they do not go to school very often. Between big bites, the eldest tells Sphere that they spend most of the day begging for food door to door in the community. At home, they sometimes can only eat in the morning. In isiXhosa the boy says that they think about food all the time, and all they want is for there to be food at home.

Civil society fights for school meals

These pop-up soup kitchens have become a staple in Makhanda, helping to feed families as well as pupils who could not get school meals during the country’s hard Covid-19 lockdown, and who still struggle to access them.

In more normal times, the National School Nutrition Programme feeds roughly 9.6 million pupils every day, but it came to a halt for more than three months during the hard lockdown period.

In July, following legal action by civil society organisation Equal Education and two schools in Limpopo, a judgment handed down in the high court ordered that the department of basic education reinstate the nutrition programme with immediate effect, finding that depriving pupils of meals grossly violated their rights.

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A vegetable garden at the Mzomhle Preschool. Picture: Black Star/Spotlight

“Children are categorically vulnerable, poor hungry children are exceptionally vulnerable. The degree of the violation of the constitutional rights are thus egregious,” states the judgment.

Following the judgment, Equal Education and Section27 (a public interest law centre) have closely tracked implementation of the court’s orders and the uptake of the programme in each province. The most recent progress report, in this respect, submitted by provincial education departments, shows that the uptake has improved, with more 8.4 million pupils now receiving meals, says Julia Chaskalson, communications officer for Section27.

“There are still 1.2 million pupils who are not receiving their meals, however. In the Western Cape and Free State, numbers of pupils accessing the programme are worryingly low, with only 40% and 38% of eligible pupils reported by the provinces to be collecting meals in these provinces respectively,” says Chaskalson.

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Children queue outside a pop-up soup kitchen in Nkanini, an informal settlement in Makhanda. Picture: Black Star/Spotlight

Earlier this month, Equal Education, Equal Education Law Centre and Section27 submitted a letter to the national and provincial departments of education in response to the previous progress report. The organisations expressed concern that not all pupils were receiving meals, and that scholar transport was a barrier for pupils to access these meals. Some pupils could not get home after receiving a meal unless waiting for the end of the school day for transport.

“The department notes [in the most recent report] that there is no additional funding for transport for the nutrition programme, and that pupils must use regular scholar transport to collect meals – even if they are not required at school that day. But because pupils are not offered transport back home after they have collected their food, many choose to remain at home, even if this means they go without the school meal they are entitled to that day,” says Chaskalson.

Feeding pupils when there is no school

Alternatively, the organisations called for the department to consider food parcels, takeaway meals or vouchers for pupils to have on days they are not in school.

“The [new] reports suggest that the department is unwilling to explore the option of distributing food parcels to pupils for the days they are not expected at school because of rotating or platooning timetable systems, citing the higher cost of food parcels compared with the bulk hot meals typically cooked at school as the main reason this would not be possible.”

However, Mpumalanga and the Northern Cape have distributed food parcels to pupils on days that there is no school, she adds.

School meals as part of the National School Nutrition Programme at Soga Primary School near Qolora on the Eastern Cape’s Wild Coast. Picture: Black Star/Spotlight

“The department has also stated that food vouchers are not ‘feasible’ in this financial year but have not given further information as to whether this might be explored in the future, particularly if schools are again forced to close in the event of a second wave of Covid-19 infections. Although the department has committed to ensuring that all qualifying pupils receive the meals they are entitled to if there is another period of school closures due to a second wave, which is an undertaking that we welcome, we are still unclear on how the department intends to get meals into the hands of pupils who need them if they are at home for long periods of time.”

Spotlight approached the department directly for comment on these matters, but did not receive a response to any of our questions.

School meals as a lifeline for children and families

To better understand how the absence of the nutrition programme affected pupils directly, Spotlight heard the stories of three of Equal Education’s Equalisers from different provinces.

“Before the [re-introduction] of school meals, life at home was difficult. It [wasn’t easy] because there was no one working at home [and] we did not have anyone to provide a proper meal,” says Xolisa Mawonga, a Grade 11 pupil from the Eastern Cape.

“When meals at school stopped, I was extremely concerned [because] it meant that food was very limited especially for those of us who had close to nothing.” Mawonga says that the meals they currently receive at school are not enough, and that the small portions only help with hunger for a few hours.

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Soga Primary School near Qolora along the Eastern Cape’s Wild Coast. Picture: Black Star/Spotlight

On days that Mawonga cannot access school meals, and on the weekends, he says that they must ask other people in the community to assist with food, or do odd jobs or ask for donations “just so we can get a proper meal,” he says.

“Young people and children should be interviewed and included to discuss the consequences of the decision makers,” he adds.

“Having a soup kitchen could be key [to addressing child hunger and nutrition] and would really assist pupils who were relying on the nutrition at school. We could also get donations and fruit baskets to try and balance the diet and food intake,” says Mawonga.

A 16-year-old pupil from Limpopo, who asked to remain anonymous, shares a similar story.

“Life won’t be easy now if there is no food at school because some of us students go to school hungry. We are from the poor families who are unable to afford to buy food for breakfast,” says the pupil.

Read: When kids go hungry: Fighting for solutions in the ECD sector

“It was hard for me when I heard that there will no longer be school food during the hard lockdown because sometimes I leave home on an empty stomach without breakfast hoping that at school they will provide some meals. So now it’s really hard because my parents cannot afford to make a lunch box for me,” the pupil adds.

Now that school meals have resumed, similar to Mawonga, this pupil says that the portion sizes are not the same as before but that the food is healthy. However, both this pupil and Mawonga say that the meals should have more fruits and vegetables and less starch.

“I think that before the government can make any decisions about the food that they provide at school they need to look at the children’s background first because most of us come from poor backgrounds,” says the pupil from Limpopo.

When meals at school stopped, I was extremely concerned [because] it meant that food was very limited especially for those of us who had close to nothing

“I think children must at least make a garden for themselves so that they don’t suffer more. At least when they have vegetables in their yard, it won’t be a problem for them to get food. Most of the families cannot afford to buy vegetables almost every day, so I think having a garden in their yard is the best solution and [there] won’t be any malnutrition if they could at least eat vegetables,” says the pupil.

“Tragic,” is the word Liyabona Mkhize, a Grade 11 pupil from Gauteng, uses to describe the feeling when learning that there would be no school meals during the hard lockdown.

“Some families [do not have access] to any social grant, knowing very well that the food that was provided at school could at least play a vital role in a pupil’s life by not letting them sleep with hunger,” says Mkhize.

Calls for solutions

Mkhize says that government should do surveys or questionnaires to better understand the feelings that pupils and their communities have about the decisions that are being made and give pupils the opportunity to also suggest possible solutions.

Mkhize adds that schools should provide food parcels twice per month to pupils to take home, and that government should better fund non governmental organisations that provide soup kitchens to communities.

While the work being done in Makhanda by people like Maseti, Sphere and Erushin helps pupils to get a much-needed meal, it is questionable whether it offers a sustainable long-term solution.

School meals as part of the National School Nutrition Programme at Soga Primary School near Qolora on the Eastern Cape’s Wild Coast. Picture: Black Star/Spotlight

“Because challenges with scholar transport and rotating school timetable systems are likely to persist, we urge the department to consider the distribution of food parcels and food vouchers to ensure that all 9.6 million pupils’ nutritional needs are being met, even on the days that they are at home,” says Chaskalson. “It’s critical that the department prevent regressions to pupils’ constitutional rights.”

*Note: Section27 is quoted in this article. Spotlight is published by Section27 and the TAC, but is editorially independent, an independence that the editors guard jealously. Spotlight is a member of the South African Press Council.

**When kids go hungry is a six-part series looking at the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown on the nutritional status of children in South Africa. This series is supported by Media Monitoring Africa as part of the 2020 Isu Elihle Awards.

*This article was published by Spotlight – health journalism in the public interest.


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